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If Ravens begin postseason on road, they're bound to get lost

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Nothing in their recent play on the road suggests the Ravens would fare well as a wild card. (US Presswire)  
Nothing in their recent play on the road suggests the Ravens would fare well as a wild card. (US Presswire)  

SAN DIEGO -- Baltimore's Terrell Suggs had it right when he called Sunday night's loss here "a reality check," and this is the reality: If Baltimore doesn't win the AFC North, it probably doesn't go to the Super Bowl.

Yeah, I know, the Ravens reached the playoffs as a wild card in 2008 and lasted until the conference championship game. But that was then, and this is now, and now they flounder on the road ... and that's a problem. Because if you're a playoff wild card, you're on the road.

The Ravens have been there seven times this season, going 3-4 and seldom looking as befuddled, outclassed and outplayed as they were in their 34-14 beatdown by San Diego.

But they're unbeaten at home. In fact, they won 17 of their past 18 in Baltimore, and that's why they better hope San Francisco knocks off Pittsburgh on Monday.

Because if the 49ers don't, the Steelers almost surely will win the division again. Their two remaining games are vs. St. Louis and Cleveland, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out they'll be heavy favorites.

Baltimore, meanwhile, closes with Cleveland at home and Cincinnati on the road, and after what I just witnessed, I don't know which Ravens team will show up against the Bengals.

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It's not just that the Ravens lost another road game. It's that they were beaten everywhere, with San Diego shredding a defense that one Chargers coach said he considers the league's most formidable.

Maybe, but not on Sunday. It didn't pressure the pocket. It didn't cover receivers. It missed tackles. It blew coverages. And it seldom made big plays. In short, it wasn't a Ravens defense that played with a sense of urgency. And with two games left, that's not only disturbing; it might be the "reality check" Suggs was talking about.

"We're back in hell," Suggs said, "but we vacation there. It's nothing new to us. ... If you don't show up and play in games like this, you're going to get your ass whipped. Like I said last week, championship teams get on a roll and they keep playing. They peak. They don't take a step back."

Precisely. Which is why Baltimore should be worried.

I mean, the Chargers should've been the perfect target for Baltimore's aggressive pass rush. Their offensive line is so beaten up they've had to suit up 13 players there, including 11 starters, with one of those starters former Baltimore reject Jared Gaither.

So San Diego was vulnerable in an area where Baltimore could take advantage.

Only it didn't. Philip Rivers wasn't sacked and was barely pressured while the Ravens' Joe Flacco was dumped seven times. Rivers was so accurate, productive and poised, the Chargers scored on their first five possessions and six of its first seven. Their only failure occurred when kicker Nick Novak bounced a 37-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright.

Worse, San Diego three times had drives of 80 or more yards and another of 74.

"One thing I noticed Philip was doing," Suggs said, "was that he knew where he needed to go from the snap. You've got to take your hat off to him; [he's a] veteran quarterback. But you've got to stick to the script. We can't let the ball go over our head, and we've got to stop the run.

"You've got to take your hats off to our coaches. We knew what they [the Chargers] were going to do. We just didn't execute. I'm real disappointed, because our coaches prepared us. We knew they were going to go downtown. We knew they were going to spread us. I feel disappointed, because we let our fans down."

But they let themselves down, too. These are supposed to be the big, bad Baltimore Ravens, a physical club that finally would beat Pittsburgh to the top of the division, gain a first-round bye and benefit from an enormous home-field advantage for the first time in coach John Harbaugh’s tenure.

Only that might not happen, and, as I said, that's a warning, people. Baltimore lost to Tennessee on the road. It lost to Seattle on the road. It lost to Jacksonville on the road. Now, this.

There isn't a winning club in that group. So how do the Ravens run the table on the road next month against the best the AFC has to offer? Answer: They probably don't.

"The disappointing part is that we didn't come out and do what we were supposed to do," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It's one thing to get the home-field [advantage], but the bottom line is when you get in the playoffs, everybody's record is 0-0.

"If I hadn't been through this a million times, I'd be down. But this is a learning curve, and what we have to do with that learning curve is say, 'How can I get better?' "

Well, since you asked, you can start by pressuring the pocket, then covering receivers, wrapping on tackles and making big stops. Then maybe, just maybe, you take the heat off your offense to play catch-up. It worked in the past. For some reason it didn't work here ... or in Seattle ... or in Tennessee.

There's a theme there, and it's a disturbing one for Baltimore -- especially if it must enter the playoffs as a wild card again.

"We still can get our first-round bye and play at home," Suggs said, "but we need a little help now. We have to go the long way. Yeah, it's a reality check. We got our ass kicked, and now it's back to the drawing board."

I'd say that about sums it up.

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